They might still be Giants, but the Squirrels could have been Senators.
As all the giddiness and confetti befell the Richmond Squirrels' inaugural season at The Diamond — league-leading attendance, unheard of sellouts, Nutzy's marketing blitzkrieg — officials with the Washington Nationals began dropping by. Earlier this summer, in fact, the Squirrels played host to the club's president, Stan Kasten.
Duly impressed, the Nationals expressed interest in moving their AA affiliate from Harrisburg, Pa., to Richmond, a source close to the talks tells Style Weekly.
The team balked, however. Why? You guessed it: Richmond didn't have its plans for a new ballpark firmly in place.
“They were concerned about whether or not Richmond would move quickly,” the source says. “They are not unhappy there and Harrisburg has a shiny new stadium and [Richmond] has a Diamond that was spruced up.”
It's a recurring theme. Before the AA Squirrels, the AAA Richmond Braves had, on more than one occasion, threatened to leave if Richmond didn't build a new $60 million-plus stadium, preferably anywhere but on the Boulevard.
The Squirrels' ownership has recently expressed concern about the lack of a timetable for a new stadium. Lou DiBella, the Squirrels' president and managing partner, says he's not unhappy, just “concerned.” He declined to comment on the prospect of the Nationals relocating their AA affiliate to Richmond, reiterating that the team is happy with its current affiliation with the San Francisco Giants.
But he says the clock is ticking. He says the mayor's office has been responsive, but that The Diamond simply isn't worth much additional investment by his ownership group, which has already dumped $2 million to spruce up the 25-year-old ballpark.
“The Diamond is not good enough for anyone,” DiBella says. “I'm not at all suggesting that an effort isn't being made. That being said, we were pretty much promised that if we put in the necessary money to bring The Diamond up to livability — if we held up our end of the bargain — that we could expect a new stadium in relatively short order.”
Unlike so many other city development projects (think CenterStage, the Richmond Convention Center, the CanalWalk) the Squirrels have actually invested their own money and proven their business model will work before building anew. And they prefer the Boulevard, over, say, historically challenging Shockoe Bottom.
Landing the Nationals AA affiliate from Harrisburg seems an unlikely scenario, says Kevin Reichard, editor of Ballpark Digest. Richmond, however, might have another shot at the Nationals in 2012. But he doubts it would make much difference.
Richmond's biggest advantage, he says, is savvy ownership.
“You got really lucky with a good group of operators,” Reichard says.